Harvard University has introduced measures to protect students facing caste discrimination after demands from South Asian graduate student workers, reported NBC News on Friday.
Earlier this week, the university ratified the contract of the Graduate Student Union and caste was included as the new protected category. The student organisers had been pushing for this since March.
The decision was taken after around nine months of discussions between the union and the administration with support from Equality Labs, a Dalit civil rights organisation.
The university refused to answer the news channel’s questions on the development, but confirmed that the contract had been ratified.
Discrimination based on the Hindu caste system has prevailed in campuses across the United States as immigration from South Asia increased since the 1980s, according to NBC News.
In the United States, 25% of Dalits have faced either verbal or physical assault, and one out of three students from the community has reported that they faced bias that had an adverse impact on their education, according to a study by Equality Labs.
According to the Equality Labs report, two out of three Dalit students said they had been treated unfairly at work and 60% reported facing caste-based derogatory jokes or remarks.
About 40% Dalits and 14% Shudra respondents were made to feel unwelcome at their place of worship because of their caste.
The Equality Labs survey noted that in the context of a principally Eurocentric school curriculum, many teachers are not aware of the nuances of caste and religion in South Asian society. It recommended that educators should familiarise themselves with caste and its implications for students.
Aparna Gopalan, a doctoral student at the university and a member of the Graduate Students Union, told NBC News that many white administrators had no foundational understanding of caste.
“I don’t think they really understood,” Gopalan told NBC News. “At one point, they asked, ‘Why isn’t caste just protected under nationality?’ and I was flabbergasted. We were operating on a very basic level.”
Gopalan said that this was the first time that Harvard University or any other Ivy League institution decided to include caste as a protected category, reported NBC News.
“HGSU’s [Harvard Graduate Students Union’s] win has already created remarkable precedent for workers and students at other universities as they fight against caste injustice in the United States, and we will support these struggles in every way we can,” she said, according to NBC News.
Executive Director of Equality Labs Thenmozhi Soundararajan told NBC News that the Harvard University’s decision is a reminder that caste equity is a matter of workers’ and students’ rights.